The rise of quotative like (I was like, What?) has been swift and striking since it emerged a few decades ago. No word stays exactly the same, but the changes and extensions to like have been more noticeable than most on account of its versatility, popularity, and prominence.
So what will happen to like in the future? More change, if these tweets are anything to go by:
If you click on Sarah’s first tweet (or its date, in some browsers) you can read more follow-up discussion.
I would have been confused by what the child meant, and I’d probably have exhausted her patience long before figuring it out. The fact that Sarah Shulist is a linguistic anthropologist and Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist (who has done research on like) may have helped them infer the child’s intent more quickly in each case.
The rhetorical question What are you like? was in vogue in Ireland a few years ago to express teasing amazement at someone’s behaviour. It’s fun to imagine the line coming to mean, in one possible future, What you are saying?
Whether this usage moves beyond lexical/structural experimentation in first-language learners and becomes, say, part of teenagers’ speech remains to be seen. Probably not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Young people are the prime movers and shakers of language change.
The scenarios described in the tweets presumably arose because the children heard people around them using quotative like, and reformulated the grammar a little when internalising and then using it.
If you’ve heard this use of like or a related innovation, from a child or anyone else, do let me know.
Update: Linguist Neal Whitman tells me his son, aged four, used to say That’s what he was like to mean That’s what he was thinking, and even used to extract conversational-hedge like: I was like, just about to win, is what I was like. Neal wrote about this in 2004, and has followed up on my post at his own blog, Literal-Minded, where he documents ‘the journey of be like into syntactic regularity’.
In another future, this one fictional, depicted in the TV show The 100, David Peterson’s conlang Trigedasleng (which descended from a US English dialect) uses laik to mean ‘be’ and bilaik as a figurative copula and in various subordinating roles, such as to introduce hypothetical or conditional clauses. The words derive from our like and be like:
yu laik fisa = you are a healer
ai laik ticha = I am a teacher
ai bilaik ticha = I am a teacher, for all intents and purposes
Gona bilaik ai don fis op ste klir = The warrior that I cured is safe
ai don sen in chit bilaik ai gaf sen in = I’ve heard what I needed to hear
Thanks to Sharon for tipping me off to Trigedasleng and the ‘futureteens from space’. For more like this, see my other posts on language and the future.